Four healthcare workers were charged with aggravated manslaughter on Tuesday in connection with the deaths of 12 people at a stifling hot Hollywood nursing home in September 2017 after Hurricane Irma cut power to the facility’s air conditioning system.
It’s unusual for healthcare workers to face criminal charges when their patients die in the course of receiving care, but Hollywood Police Chief Chris O’Brien said the charges were merited because the four workers “didn’t do enough” to save the residents who died.
“These four individuals neglected their duties and failed to provide adequate care,” O’Brien said at a press conference announcing the charges.
Three of the former employees of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills surrendered to police on Monday, including Jorge Carballo, the facility’s administrator, and Sergo Colin, a night shift nursing supervisor. Both men face 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter.
Hollywood police also charged Althia Meggie, a registered nurse, and Tamika Miller, a licensed practical nurse, with aggravated manslaughter and tampering with or fabricating medical records.
Among those attending Tuesday’s press conference were family members of residents who died at the nursing home. Photo montages of the residents were placed on easels in front of a stage, and a video monitor displayed mug shots of the four workers charged with aggravated manslaughter.
O’Brien said police met with the families on Monday night to share information before releasing it to the public.
“The families sitting here today should not have lost their loved ones that way,” O’Brien said. “They have been living an absolute nightmare.”
He added that the investigation into the nursing home deaths continues, and that “additional arrests are anticipated.”
Jim Cobb, a Louisiana-based attorney representing Carballo, said his client was “railroaded” with the criminal charges, and he accused Florida regulators of conducting a “cover up”.
“They have attempted in these charges to blame healthcare workers and caregivers who showed up to work and were at their posts in the middle of a natural disaster emergency and did the very best they could,” Cobb said.
Residents of the nursing home began dying three days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in South Florida in September 2017. They ranged in age from 56 to 99.
About 150 people lived at the nursing home at the time. Administrators did not evacuate the facility even as temperatures rose during the three days the air conditioning system was out, and despite the fact that Memorial Regional Hospital is located next door.
Cobb said there’s a reason the nursing home’s residents were not evacuated to Memorial Regional, one of the largest hospitals in the state.
“Memorial Regional Hospital was slammed,” he said. “They had actually discharged several of their patients to us, to Hollywood Hills, because they needed the beds. Their emergency room was overwhelmed. It was a post-hurricane disaster, for crying out loud, not a slow day at the local urgent care clinic.”
Memorial spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin told the Associated Press that she could not confirm or deny that the hospital sent patients to the nursing home. She also said the nursing home should have declined if it was asked to take patients while the air conditioning was out.
When the nursing home lost power on Sept. 10, 2017, a back-up generator kicked in but powered only the lights, medical equipment and appliances. A separate transformer that powered the central air conditioning system remained out of commission.
Hollywood Hills administrators said they brought in portable air chillers to cool the building. But the portable chillers may have made matters worse because they weren’t properly ventilated and pushed additional heat into a confined space, according to the testimony of an engineering expert hired by the state to evaluate the disaster.
Inside the building, air temperatures spiked to 99 degrees — about 18 degrees higher than required by federal regulations for nursing homes. Workers scrambled to tend to the elderly residents. Some labored to breathe while others lay motionless and silent in their beds, according to statements from family members.
As the nursing home sweltered, administrators said they repeatedly called Florida Power & Light to restore power to the air conditioning system, and dialing former Gov. Rick Scott’s personal cell phone. Scott gave out the number to the nursing home’s operators during a conference call as the hurricane approached.
Scott’s office released a statement at the time saying that the nursing home’s administrators never indicated there was an urgent need.
By the third day without power at the nursing home, residents began to give out. The nursing home called an ambulance for one resident felled by an irregular heartbeat, and a second ambulance an hour later for a resident who couldn’t breathe.
A third ambulance was called for a resident who suffered a heart attack and died before rescue arrived. Before paramedics could leave the building, another resident died and then another. Memorial Regional doctors and nurses, alarmed by the flurry of calls, ordered an evacuation of the nursing home.
The nursing home’s license was suspended days after the evacuation. In January, state regulators revoked the license. The nursing home’s owners, South Miami’s Larkin Hospital, are appealing the revocation.